By Kieran Cannon (@kiercannon)
Ever since exploding into public consciousness with the sardonic slacker anthem Loser in 1994, Beck has established himself as one of music’s most notorious shapeshifters. His bizarre but engaging musical journey has seen him landing in country-via-hip-hop territory on Odelay, bombastic Prince-infused freak funk on Midnite Vultures and stripped back folk rock on Morning Phase; an album which saw him once again drop his characteristic snark in favour of a more sincere, humble approach à la Sea Change. After this reprise, another tectonic shift was always on the cards and, after a great deal of uncertainty, it has arrived in the form of Colors.
Of all the singles, Dreams was perhaps the most reliable indicator of what to expect from the Californian singer-songwriter and his latest sonic philosophy. In stark contrast to the introspection and melancholy of songs like Blue Moon, scratchy overdriven guitar immediately bursts forth and upbeat, pop-driven vocals signal a resurgence of confidence after the vulnerable, confessional nature of Morning Phase; a rebirth of sorts. Teaming up with quintessential pop producer Greg Kurstin, with whom he recorded the majority of the album’s instrumentation, Beck has stated his intention was always to navigate a drastic shift away from the atmosphere of his previous album. “I was really trying to make something that would be good to play live” he said, intimating a desire to rediscover the energy of earlier records.
What follows is an album whose songs occupy a spectrum: at one end, experimental pop and at the other, straightforward dance-rock. Along the way and to varying extents, influences ranging from ’60s Beatles to ’80s chart stalwarts are channeled. Undaunted by being overly simplistic, the primary focus of his latest material appears to be raw energy and straightforward, hedonistic enjoyment. The Beck of yore, the man who once sung of “running through the mini mall in [his] underwear“, makes only a cameo appearance. Instead, his trademark metaphoric and often-surreal lyrics have been significantly dialed down to be exchanged for radio-friendly, vague pop/rock tropes. Take, for example, the titular opening track Colors: through effects-laden vocals he sings “All my colors, see the colors, make the colors, feel the colors / Tell me, do you feel alive?“, a half-arsed, generic feelgood chorus; as uninspired as you’re ever likely to hear from him. On this and an unfortunate number of other tracks (the worst culprits: Up All Night and Square One), it’s hard not to observe that his persona has been sanitised – somewhat diluted in the pursuit of ‘fun’.
Where his music shines the most is on absurdist, sample-heavy material from the Dust Brothers-era or the tender, heartfelt introspection on records like Sea Change; however, all too often on Colors the relentless optimism coursing through the majority of the album borders on nondescript and ‘for the sake of it’. Arguably Wow ranks as the outright low point, a track which, for a while, was almost destined for the recycling bin before his children convinced him otherwise. Previous forays into the realms of alternative hip-hop, such as the wonderfully rambling Novacane, have generally been successful thanks to his snarling wit and turn of phrase, but in this context it feels remarkably forced. Proceedings are underway with a saccharine pan flute riff backed by a trap beat and, as the insipid chorus approaches, it becomes apparent even Beck’s celebrated genre-meshing capabilities have their limit. Whether or not delivered with colossal amounts of irony, the regrettable conclusion is it’s just a bit shit. Chance the Rapper was supposedly invited to collaborate on the track; however, had he accepted, it’s difficult to envisage how much of an impact he would’ve delivered. Unless, of course, he decided to veto that obnoxious pan flute.
Despite this, there are several promising moments throughout the record where his latest musical doctrine shows signs of clicking. Dear Life, undoubtedly one of the highlights of the album, stands alone as a rare moment of doubt among a sea of optimism. Outwardly cheery, featuring an incredibly catchy honky-tonk piano riff and several unpredictable chord changes, the melody hides darker lyrical content. “How long must I wait / Before the thrill is gone” he muses, a brief period of apprehension among euphoria – a recognition that it won’t last forever. The midsection – containing three solid numbers Dear Life, No Distraction and Dreams – is evidence that, perhaps with refinement and greater attention to detail, another album following a similar format could work. The majority of this record (Wow being a notable exception) makes for pleasant enough listening; there’s no doubt he has succeeded in creating ‘fun’ music. Bearing in mind the sheer ingenuity of albums like Morning Phase and Odelay, however, it’s difficult to avoid disappointment when Beck writes music that fails to make an impact.